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China in Eurasia briefing: The wider strategy behind China’s Ukraine diplomacy

Wang Yi Meets with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People's Republic of China/Released)
September 04, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Wider Strategy Behind China’s Ukraine Diplomacy

China joined international diplomatic talks in Saudi Arabia on August 6 for a two-day summit with officials from 40 countries designed to find a framework for peace in Ukraine. But does it signal a new tack for Beijing?

Finding Perspective: China sent its special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, who offered support for the summit and called for another round of talks through the format that includes countries from the West and across the Global South.

The summit — which also included representatives from the European Union, India, and the United States — excluded Russia and centered upon putting momentum behind a 10-point peace formula developed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Several observers saw China’s presence as a sign that it was willing to play a more constructive role in pushing for peace talks, but there’s plenty of signals that show Beijing is playing its own game here.

China unveiled its own 12-point peace document in February and Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, was skeptical that Beijing was changing its stance on the war, arguing that while the economic and reputational costs for standing by Russia are rising, the longer term strategic calculations of keeping Russia by its side remain the same for China.

This was reaffirmed when Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on August 8 and assured him that China hadn’t wavered on its partnership with Moscow.

Why It Matters: China is hoping that it can use its diplomatic track record and openness to dialogue on Ukraine to cement its status as the Global South’s superpower and showcase its leadership credentials in the process.

Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent article for Politico that think tankers and policymakers in China are focused on appearing constructive around ending the war while at the same time ensuring that Moscow will continue to stand by Beijing in rewriting the Western-led world order.

The focal point for establishing this new non-Western order are the so-called “nonaligned” countries across Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Global South — many of the same ones that were in Saudi Arabia over the weekend.

Beijing has invested tens of billions of dollars over the last decade in boosting its global image and it has so far yielded mixed results, according to a series of new polls.

recent Pew Research poll found that two-thirds of respondents from the 24 countries surveyed viewed China unfavorably, while only 28 percent held a favorable opinion. Anti-China sentiment has also reached new highs in Argentina, India, and Brazil, according to the poll.

But there are important divisions here. The majority of the countries surveyed were Western, with African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa showing much more favorable views of China in comparison.

While souring public opinion in the West and countries like India marks its own type of foreign policy failure for China, the story is different in Africa and the Middle East.

Public opinion polls by Afrobaromter and Arab Barometer, show that majorities in Africa and the Middle East tend to view China favorably — although, the Afrobarometer data found that both China and the United States were slipping in recent years as competition between them accelerates.

These global divisions and the larger battle for hearts and minds have now carried over to the diplomatic stage around Ukraine.

Expert Corner: Georgia Gets Closer To China

Readers asked: “Georgia signed a strategic partnership agreement with China on July 27. How major of a step towards China is this for the Georgian government?”

To find out more, I asked Emil Avdaliani, a China expert and professor at Tbilisi’s European University:

“This is yet another sign that Georgia is pursuing a multivector foreign policy. Focus on the West will remain in place, but ties with other powers will be developed further. Whether this would bring meaningful results will depend on the war in Ukraine and especially the elections in Georgia slated for 2024.

“The agreement between Tbilisi and Beijing could also be regarded as a bargaining chip for Tbilisi’s rather complicated relations with the West. The calculus could be that amid Brussels’ upcoming decision on whether to grant Georgia an EU candidate status, Tbilisi might be raising the stakes by advancing its ties with big Eurasian actors like China.

“I think the Georgian public slightly overreacted to the agreement between China and Georgia when it was announced. It’s unclear what the document would bring in practical terms. For China, Georgia is a rather small market and the only real value the country holds for Beijing is its geographic location and the growing realization to advance the Middle Corridor trade route. Moreover, China could also be eyeing greater engagement with the Black Sea region, where major geopolitical competition is unfolding between Russia and the West.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at [email protected] or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

1. A Belt And Road Summit This October

After a three-year hiatus due to strict COVID restrictions, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is planning to host a high-profile summit for his signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — although there are early signs that it won’t receive the top billing Beijing is hoping for.

What It Means: The most prominent guest to RSVP for this October’s Belt and Road Forum — the first such gathering since 2019 — is Russian President Vladimir Putin, something The Wall Street Journal reports is causing European leaders to want to keep their distance.

The BRI — China’s mammoth overseas infrastructure push that gained steam in the mid-2010s — has been the subject of some belt tightening in recent years and seen its reputation fall amid stalling projects, governments struggling to repay loans, and allegations of corruption and overspending.

High-level European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz currently have no plans to attend the forum in Beijing — which will be the third BRI summit since the inaugural one in 2017 — and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has said she plans to pull her country out of the BRI altogether.

Other countries like the Czech Republic and Greece, both of which signed up for the initiative and were among some of Europe’s more enthusiastic participants, currently do not plan to send senior officials for the BRI forum.

The BRI has been at the center of Beijing’s efforts to boost international development and expand its global influence and the guest list for this year’s upcoming gathering will be an important litmus test for the strength of China’s economic diplomacy under Xi.

No confirmed date has been set for the summit, but Chinese officials are reportedly eying mid-October.

2. Kyrgyzstan Turns To China For Hydropower Help

Kyrgyzstan, which is in the midst of a yearslong energy crisis, announced that it signed a memorandum of understanding and an investment agreement with a consortium of Chinese companies on July 27 to build a new hydropower plant that could help with the growing energy shortages, my colleague Toktosun Shambetov from RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

What You Need To Know: Few details were revealed about the newly inked project, which will consist of a cascade of multiple hydropower plants (HPPs) in succession near Kazarman in the country’s Jalalabad Province.

But according to an announcement by the Kyrgyz cabinet of ministers, it’s tentatively estimated to cost between $2.4 billion-$3 billion, making it one of the country’s most ambitious hydropower ventures.

Akylbek Japarov, the chairman of the Kyrgyz cabinet of ministers, said the project was a game changer that wouldn’t only help erase the Central Asian country’s energy deficit, but also turn it into an energy exporter.

That would be a welcome achievement for the government, which announced a three-year energy emergency on August 1 due to widespread electricity shortages.

There are still concerns over whether the project will come to fruition, with multiple experts telling Toktosun that the government’s poor record in actually delivering large-scale infrastructure is spotty at best, with many projects grappling with corruption, delays, or being abandoned altogether.

3. How Serbia Become Blanketed In Chinese-Made Surveillance Cameras

A quiet expansion of Chinese-made surveillance cameras has spread across Serbia in the last five years, with some towns and villages having one camera for every 100 inhabitants.

My colleague Natalija Jovanovic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service traveled across the country and investigated the shadowy company behind the spread of the technology. Read her report here.

The Details: Belgrade’s expansion of Huawei surveillance cameras — many of which have facial-recognition capabilities — was the center of an RFE/RL investigation last year, but the countrywide growth has received little attention inside and outside the country.

Natalija’s monthslong investigation found that the spread has taken place with little public consultation or disclosed information from the authorities.

The report also found that 42 local governments surveyed have awarded their contracts exclusively to Macchina Security, a shadowy Serbian company increasingly active on the security goods and services market that has been winning tenders and importing Chinese-made surveillance technology into the country in recent years.

Check out Natalija’s investigation here.

Across The Supercontinent

Homebody: According to a Bloomberg News analysis, Xi, who made an average of 14 overseas trips per year from 2013 to 2019, has only spent two days outside China this year and has not supplemented the foreign trips with video calls. Instead, Xi is making foreign dignitaries come to him and has met with representatives from 36 countries so far in 2023.

Willkommen: TSMC, the world’s largest contract chipmaker based in Taiwan, has agreed to build a 10 billion-euro ($10.9 billion) plant in Dresden, Germany, in partnership with Infineon Technologies AG, NXP Semiconductors NV, and Robert Bosch GmbH. 5 billion euros ($5.49 billion) will come from the German government as subsidies to support construction of the factory.

Seaside Power Politics: The Chinese Communist Party has begun its annual summer retreat in Beidaihe. The gathering is usually a chance for party members to gather and speak candidly about issues concerning its leadership and comes amid growing tensions over the economy and the unexplained disappearance of Qin Gang, who was China’s foreign minister.

Steel Partners: A delegation of lawmakers from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party traveled to China in late July, where they reaffirmed their support for the Chinese Communist Party’s political model and held talks over the status of Kosovo, my colleague Nevena Bogdanovic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports.

CPEC Turns 10: Late July marked the 10th anniversary of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing’s flagship project within the BRI. CPEC has had no shortage of controversy and setbacks in those years, while still forging ahead with investment and deeper ties.

The Lowy Institute published a scorecard for CPEC that concludes that it may have been unrealistic from its inception. Take a look here.

One Thing To Watch

With China’s economy performing below expectations, Chinese authorities are putting pressure on prominent local economists to avoid discussing negative trends, such as deflation.

Multiple local brokerage analysts and researchers at leading universities as well as state-run think tanks have told Western media that they have been instructed by regulators, their employers and even domestic media to avoid speaking negatively about topics ranging from fears of capital flight to softening prices.

Market analysts say the growing self-censorship among economic-research professionals will have deepening knock-on effects and attach further questions to how reliable local Chinese data is for investors.